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Unraveling Democracy's Complexity: Astra Taylor and John Dewey's Insights

Democracy, as an idealised form of government, holds a considerable amount of individuals’ lives. It not only promises people freedom, equality, and justice but also gives authority to 'the people' which includes them in the practice of decision-making throughout the government. However, democracy is such a broad concept that it is still a subject that is thought about and theorised. “Democracy does not exist, it never has” says Astra Taylor in her book named Democracy May Not Exist, But We'll Miss It When It's Gone (2019, p. 2). Taylor, a contemporary filmmaker, writer, and political theorist, provocatively questions who truly comprises 'the people' and underscores the rarity of authentic democratic experiences amidst media sensationalism and consumer-driven culture. Concurrently, the sage voice of John Dewey, a renowned philosopher and advocate of democracy, echoes through the annals of the 20th century. Dewey's theories emphasize the indispensable role of active citizen participation, the cultivation of shared values, and the pursuit of equality within the democratic framework. In this exploration, this article invites the reader to embark on a journey to unravel the multifaceted nature of democracy by examining the profound insights of both Taylor and Dewey, shedding light on the challenges, possibilities, and enduring significance of democracy in nurturing a just and inclusive society.

“Who, The People?”

Democracy, whose roots come from ancient Greece, promises the people rule but this promise will not be fulfilled wholly because of several reasons, according to Taylor (2019, p. 2). First, the author argues that the concept of democracy is ambiguous in some ways. For instance, sovereignty is given to the people but who is 'The people'? She questions who is included or excluded while pointing out that it is not as obvious as the monarch who is explicitly the ruler. However, in democracy, Taylor states:

The very notion of a democratic people is an idea, and an elusive one at that, not a real tangible thing. ‘The people’ isn’t self-evident or whole; it is constructed, contingent, and constantly shifting. ‘The people’ in this sense, don’t actually exist. (2019, p. 61)

'The people' who are in control of the ruling power change depending on the place and time. For example, in ancient Greece, only male citizens over 20 years old were able to vote and in this case, the idea of democratic people is exclusive to a part of the society. Likeness laid the foundation for the unity of the polis (city) since for the Greeks only those who were alike could be mutually united by philia (friendship) (Vernant, 1965, p. 60). Therefore, women and children were excluded from society because they were assumed to be fundamentally different from male citizens who share the same characteristics, named homoioi by the ancient Greeks. Taylor points out this inconsistency with these words;

In the fifth century BC, the celebrated statesman Pericles famously praised the political structure of Athens: "It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few". Given the existence of slavery and the exclusion of women, Athens failed to meet the bar by modern standards. (2019, p. 7)

This verifies Astra Taylor and demonstrates that the question of who 'The people' are does not have a concrete answer.

"Cicero Denounces Catiline" - A powerful historical painting by C. Maccari (1882-1888) capturing the moment of Cicero's impassioned denouncement of the conspirator Catiline, a dramatic scene from ancient Rome's political intrigue.
Figure 1: "Cicero Denounces Catiline" (Maccari, 1882-1888).

The other reason why the concept of democracy is dubious is that individuals do not know what it actually means. Taylor indicates that democracy, as a term, is very integrated into individuals’ lives but what it means is not clear, because individuals are unable to experience democracy in its full sense while asserting that we never will be.

Democracy is something people rarely encounter in their everyday lives: certainly not during the media and celebrity-obsessed, money-driven circus of national elections; nor at their jobs, where they are often treated like replaceable cogs in a machine and have to keep their heads down; nor at their schools or colleges, where they are encouraged to see themselves as consumers seeking a return on investment rather than as citizens preparing to participate in the common good. (Taylor, 2019, p. 5)

Astra Taylor highlights the limited presence of true democracy in people's daily experiences. She first points out how national elections, a cornerstone of democratic engagement, often get overshadowed by media sensationalism and celebrity-focused coverage, diverting attention from meaningful policy discussions. This can leave citizens feeling disconnected from the democratic process. She then draws attention to the workplace. In such settings, the democratic ideal of individual participation and decision-making can seem distant. Individuals often feel like replaceable components in their jobs, lacking agency and having to conform, thereby limiting their democratic engagement. Furthermore, in educational institutions, the emphasis on consumerism and personal gain supersedes the cultivation of active citizenship and the pursuit of the common good. These factors collectively contribute to a perceived absence of democracy in the fabric of people’s everyday lives; however, she believes that democracy as a public experiment, is worth fighting for (Taylor, 2019). Finally, Taylor references educational institutions, where she argues that the emphasis on students as consumers seeking a return on investment can undermine the cultivation of active citizenship and a sense of responsibility for the common good. Overall, she suggests that democracy, as an ideal, often falls short in these everyday contexts, leaving room for reflection and improvement in how democratic principles are practiced in society (Taylor, 2019, p. 2).

Poster for democracy showing the hand and torch of the Statue of Liberty
Figure 2: "Poster for democracy showing the hand and torch of the Statue of Liberty" (Wikipedia Commons, 1936 - 1940).

While Taylor presents her 21st-century perspective on the notion of democracy, John Dewey –as an American philosopher from the 20th century– introduces the requirements of democracy for a good life and the problems he observes in the public sphere. John Dewey emphasises the importance of the commonality of the people in democracies. He argues that democracy is not just a political system, but a way of life that requires the active participation and collaboration of individuals who share common interests and concerns.

Transitioning from Astra Taylor's perspective on democracy to John Dewey's ideas, it's important to recognize that Taylor has raised critical questions about the practicality and implementation of democracy in contemporary life. She underscores the challenges and limitations faced by individuals in experiencing true democracy in their daily routines. Now, we will turn our attention to John Dewey, a prominent philosopher and advocate of democracy in the early 20th century. Dewey’s educational theories and experiments had a global reach, his psychological theories had a sizable influence in that growing science, and his writings about democratic theory and practice deeply influenced debates in academic and practical quarters for decades (Hildebrand, 2018). Dewey offers a complementary perspective that centers on the fundamental principles of active citizen participation, the importance of shared values and community, and the pursuit of equality. His ideas provide a framework for addressing some of the issues and aspirations identified by Taylor, shedding light on how democracy can be revitalized and enriched in society.

Democracy Illustration
Figure 3: "A thought-provoking image: Democracy" (Inventiva, 2022).

John Dewey on Commonality for Democracy

John Dewey, the co-founder of the philosophical movement known as pragmatism, a philosophy that rejected modern philosophy’s dualism epistemology and metaphysics in favour of a naturalistic outlook that saw knowledge as originating from the ongoing adaptation of the human organism to its natural surroundings (Field, n.d.), and an innovative theorist of democracy (Gouinlock, 2023) which he considers the idea of the community, also values the commonality of the people like in ancient Greece and suggests:

In a search for the conditions under which the inchoate public now extant may function democratically, we may proceed from a statement of the nature of the democratic idea in its generic social sense, From the standpoint of the individual, it consists in having a responsible share according to capacity in forming and directing the activities of the groups to which one belongs and in participating according to need in the values which the groups sustain. From the standpoint of the groups, it demands liberation of the potentialities of members of a group in harmony with the interests and goods which are common. (1927, p. 147)

In this passage by John Dewey, he is articulating the conditions necessary for the existing, yet undeveloped public, to function democratically. Dewey begins by defining the essence of the democratic idea from both an individual and a collective standpoint. From an individual perspective, Dewey asserts that democracy involves individuals having a responsible role in shaping and guiding the activities of the groups they are part of, based on their capacity and abilities. This means that in a democratic society, every individual should have the opportunity and the responsibility to actively contribute to the decision-making processes within their respective groups or communities. From a collective perspective, Dewey emphasizes the need for the liberation of the potential within each member of a group. This implies that a democratic society should encourage and enable its members to realize their full potential in a manner that aligns with the common interests and shared values of the community. In other words, democracy should foster an environment where individuals can flourish and contribute to the collective well-being.

 "Voice of the People" - A thought-provoking illustration from The New Yorker in 2016, symbolizing the power and influence of public opinion in contemporary society.
Figure 4: "A compelling illustration capturing the essence of democracy and the power of public opinion: Voice of the People" (The New Yorker, 2016).

Equal Appreciation of Individuals

Dewey (1927) asserts that equality, in the democratic sense, recognizes and respects each individual’s unique and irreplaceable qualities:

Now whatever the idea of equality means for democracy, it means, I take it, that the world is not to be construed as a fixed order of species, grades or degrees. It means that every existence deserving the name of existence has something unique and irreplaceable about it, that it does not exist to illustrate a principle, to realize a universal or to embody a kind or class. (p. 208)

In this passage, Dewey is delving into the concept of equality within the context of democracy. He essentially argues that when we talk about equality in a democratic society, it should not be interpreted as a rigid hierarchy or fixed order where individuals are categorized into distinct species, grades, or degrees based on some inherent qualities or characteristics. Instead, Dewey asserts that in a true democracy, every individual, every "existence deserving the name of existence", possesses something unique and irreplaceable about them. He argues that each person should not be seen merely as an example of a broader principle, realization of a universal idea, or embodiment of a particular kind or class. In other words, individuals should not be reduced to mere representatives of a category or stereotype. Dewey's point is that democracy should recognize and honor the inherent worth and individuality of every citizen. Regardless of their background, characteristics, or attributes, each person has their own unique qualities and contributions to offer to society. Democracy, in this sense, should celebrate and respect these individual qualities, ensuring that no one is relegated to a subordinate or marginalized status based on preconceived notions or rigid categories. He recognizes that people vary biologically (including genetic diversity and environmental factors) and socially (like education, emotions, behavior, religion, and economic status). Dewey contends that insisting on strict numerical equality overlooks the valuable diversity in human abilities and social roles, as individuals differ in their natural talents and societal positions (Wegmarshaus, n.d.). In essence, Dewey's perspective on equality in democracy underscores the idea that true equality means recognizing and valuing the distinctive and irreplaceable qualities of each individual, promoting a society where everyone has the opportunity to flourish and contribute based on their unique abilities and aspirations.

"Voting" - A compelling visual representation featured in Daily JStor in 2022, capturing the essence of civic engagement and the importance of participating in the democratic process through voting.
Figure 5: "An insightful image encapsulating the essence of civic participation and the democratic process through the act of voting" (Daily JStor, 2022).

In conclusion, the ideas of both Astra Taylor and John Dewey shed crucial light on important issues surrounding the concept of democracy in contemporary society. Astra Taylor's perspective forces us to confront the often limited presence of democracy in our everyday lives, pointing to the influence of media sensationalism, consumerism, and economic pressures that can hinder genuine democratic engagement. Her critique underscores the need for a more profound and inclusive democracy that goes beyond the surface of political processes. On the other hand, John Dewey's insights illuminate pathways for addressing these challenges. Dewey emphasizes the importance of active citizen participation, the recognition of individual uniqueness, and the pursuit of collective welfare, fostering a sense of community and shared values. His ideas offer a blueprint for revitalizing democracy by emphasizing the interconnectedness of individuals and the fundamental role of democracy as a way of life. These two writers' ideas are relevant and crucial because they provide a comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the multifaceted nature of democracy. Taylor's critique alerts us to the contradictions, paradoxes, limitations, and distortions in our current democratic practices, prompting us to question and improve upon them (Illing, 2023). Dewey's theories offer a constructive framework for realizing the full potential of democracy by emphasizing the active involvement of citizens and the promotion of equality and community. Together, their perspectives invite us to critically reflect on democracy's practical manifestations and aspirations, urging us to work towards a more inclusive and participatory democracy that values individual uniqueness, embraces diverse voices, and aims to foster a society where the common good is genuinely prioritized. In this symbiosis of ideas, we find a roadmap for building a more robust and meaningful democracy in the complex landscape of the modern world.

Bibliographical References

Democracy May Not Truly Exist, but It’s Still Worth Fighting For: Astra Taylor | CBC Radio. (2020, February 26). CBC. Retrieved September 12, 2023, from

Dewey, J. (1927). The Public and Its Problems. Ohio University Press.

Field, R. (n.d.). John Dewey (1859- 1952). Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Gouinlock, J. S. (2023, March 17). John Dewey. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Hildebrand, D. (2018, November 1). John Dewey. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Illing, S. (2023, September 12). Why Democracy Is the Antidote to Capitalism. Vox.

Taylor, A. (2019). Democracy May Not Exist But We'll Miss it When It's Gone. Verso Books.

Taylor, A. (2019). Who, the People? The Central Truths of Democracy Are Not Always Self-Evident. The Baffler, 43, 60-68.

Vernant, J. P. (1965). The Origins of Greek Thought. Cornell University Press.

Wegmarshaus, G.-R. (n.d.). John Dewey’s Understanding of Democracy: Inspiring Political Education in Germany. Brill.

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Hazal Kazancı

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